Monday, August 13, 2007

Draft Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Rules, 2007 -- A Few Thoughts

The activists are talking about rights of the Forest dwellers. What about the injustices to the denizens of the wild? Yes activists, tribals are human beings, they have rights but as an ordinary citizen I have a right to see that the wild animals are also protected. I want my children and grand children to have a glimpse of this magnificent heritage. The present generation of tribals except those living in North Sentinel Islands and the deep Northeast of India are not what they used to be. They crave for modern things particularly younger members. We had this daughter of one of our tribal watcher in Periyar Tiger Reserve (Vellyan, also a very good angler), who insisted that her father buy her "LUX" soap. Poor things had seen the ads in TV, which had promised to make her beautiful.

The bill is here to stay but rights aspects of this Bill have to be in consonance with the conservation provisions of existing laws. Let us work out something that benefits both the tribals and the denizens of the wild. As things stand now in the name of protecting the interests of the tribals, development strategies are going to be brought into the heartland of wilderness areas. This in the longer run will spell doom for both.

Let us have inviolate areas where the interests of the denizens of the wild override all other interests and let us have other areas where the interest of the forests dwelling communities can be dove tailed in to the mainstream of conservation.

The re drafted Bill includes other traditional forest-dwellers also instead of only the Scheduled Tribes. The cut-off date has been fixed as December 13, 2005 instead of October 31, 1980 stipulated in the original Bill. The cut-off date of 2005 is totally unacceptable. People abetted and encouraged by vested interests will encroach forestland and try to get it regularized under the Bill using political clout. We have seen this regularization happening all over India in the past. In Kerala, the goal posts have been shifted at a sickening rate.

The dwellers would have to be residing in forestland for three generations or 75 years for entitlement to land rights and the rights to collect and market the forest products. RULE 31 (4) (a) read against this provision is a joke. Admitting the claims of ‘other traditional forest dwellers’ on the basis of physical attributes/traditional structures/pictures would certainly lead to wide abuse. Imagine someone alive vouching for the existence of an un-recorded structure to the effect that it has been in existence for the last over 75 years. Plunderers will have a field day.

Now, each family would be entitled to four hectares of forest land as against 2.5 hectares envisaged in the previous Bill.It does not take into account that the number of people dependent on one plot of land has increased and this will lead to division and sub-division among family members. Here the outsiders will definitely step in with lures. In Kerala one of the ploy that has been used is to offer loans against the produce of the land. In no time at all the tribal falls in to debt trap and the outsider becomes the virtual owner of the land. There is the likelihood of the legal owners resorting to encroachment also as the family expands. This will be a vicious circle with politicians stepping in with a new cut off date at a future date.

If an area is to be declared as critical wildlife habitat, the Consent of the individuals as well as gram sabha will be required at almost every stage. From relocation to acceptance of the relocation package. But alas, if the same area is to be opened up for mining or construction of a hydel power project or any other "developmental work", no such consent will be required. All that will be required is a public Hearing. This is going to be misused conveniently. Mining and industrial lobby has very cleverly played their cards.

Rights for developmental facilities for villages inside the PA’s is going to be misused by the men out to "develop" the forest dwellers. Roads, buildings et el will speed up fragmentation of such areas. Migratory paths will be cut off. This will lead to "confrontation" with wild denizens. Again, a vicious circle.

There cannot be any free lunch for any one. Conservation responsibilities should be tied to rights. This should be explicitly written with no room for any ambiguities.

An independent monitoring mechanism, to evaluate the impact the Bill's implementation is having on forested areas, and to suggest corrective action is an absolute must. We should not be working within the confines of closed doors. There has to be a provision for making amendments based on this report.

The knowledge base of tribal communities can be utilized for effective wildlife conservation. Poachers use this now. Getting to know the tribal communities and their knowledge base should be built in to the curriculum of training forest officers.

Rules 4.3(f) & 4.3(g) limit the powers under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, with regard to transit of forest produce. Gross misuse is possible here.

Rules 5 (a) to (e), seek to shift forest / wildlife management from the Forest Department to Gram Sabhas. Capacity building has not been specified and is not a priority item here. This may throw existing forest and wildlife management in to doldrums.

Rule 16 has some dangerous portents under "disputed lands".Rule 16 (2) The onus of proof is on the State by declaring that “the presumption of rights over such disputed lands shall be in favour of the claimant unless otherwise decided.” Encroachers are in an advantageous position.

Rule 31 gives lot of leeway for the encroaches.

The relocation provision is fraught with danger.

RULE 31 (4) (a) is a joke. Admitting the claims of ‘other traditional forest dwellers’ on the basis of physical attributes/traditional structures/pictures would certainly lead to wide abuse. Imagine someone alive vouching for the existence of an un-recorded structure to the effect that it has been in existence for the last over 75 years. Plunderers will have a field day.

RULE 31 (4) (b) The clause “recognized as having been legitimate resident of the village at an earlier period of time” as applicable to ‘other traditional forest dwellers’ is vague and gives a ready weapon in the hand of the encroacher.

The rules are silent on the mode and manner for the surrender of land/rights, which are declared to be beyond the permissible limits and where is the safeguard against future grabs by the occupants.

Now is the time to build a vibrant wildlife cadre within the forest department. In Sariska, Rajasthan Forest Department, not only failed to protect the tigers but also concealed the deaths of tigers. This is what social activists are quoting as the rationale for handing over charge of forests to village communities. But the irony is that it was the villagers who actually poisoned and trapped the tigers. Lets us have in place fully trained wildlife professionals who also understand the ethos of the forest dwellers and are willing to work hand in hand with them to protect our bio-diversity. Current training methods are out of sync with present day realities.

Protecting rights of forest dwellers should not be at the expense of the rights and privileges of the rest of the law-abiding citizens. Even the water sources, which depend on the forests, could be in peril if the whole thing is not handled on a scientific basis. Being guided by raging emotions is not the way to work on this very sensitive issue, which has very wide implications


R.Raghavendra,Bangalore said...

Well, this bill has dangerous portents for our biodiversity.As Mohan said in the end a scientific approach is the need of the hour. Ruling passions of a few Adivasi activists should not be allowed to cloud the issue. If the local opinion is biased bring in foreign independent experts. I am sure UNEP would be more than willing to help. At stake is the future generations stake as well.

Anil Shekar, Chennai said...

Yes, Mohan and Raghavendra the need of the hour is to take a dispassionate, scientific view of the situation.I beseech Dr Manmohan Singh who chair Indian Wildlife Advisory Board to take in to account the rights of the future generations also.

Girish Chandran said...

The tribals sure needs protection and upliftment. But that does not mean a carte blanche should be handed over to them. Study the matter scientifically and come to an informed decision.

Pat said...

I do agree with Mr. Mohan Alembath on the threat to forest lands and more particularly to PAs (Protected areas). As you are aware, the Act aims in grating protection and giving certain rights to forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers that are integral to the very survival and sustainability of the forest ecosystem. Apart from the preamble being colourful, this is the beginning of the doom for conservation as far as India is considered.

Since Mr. Alembath has already pointed out issues related to occupation, identification and restoring rights etc., I am not going to repeat the same. I wish to add just two issues:

1. The conflict with environment commenced with man setting foot on earth. While the deterioration was slow most part of the time, it started accelerating at an alarming pace with the industrial revolution. The conflict became rampant and visible signs prompted a few to wake up and coin new strategy ‘conservation’. A dictionary view would clearly show that it means to preserve and protect what has not been already lost. To facilitate this process, areas were classified as forest lands, sanctuaries, national parks and so on coming within the gambit of Pas. However, the true sense of conservation is yet to unfurl and many a group of environmentalists have been repeatedly trying to improvise strategy. While the concept is still in its infantile stage, the current Act is a definite enabler to take the whole concept back to the womb again. Please read the development proposed in the Act and Rules and then look into an illustrative fact that the Perumbavoor Township in Kerala and going up to the Nedumbassery International Airport are still within the map of forest land. Shocking but true and this are precisely what development does to forest land. We have a meager forest cover in the Country today and imagine taking further gamble to such areas. The process of interference into tribal colonies in the guise of tribal welfare has resulted in the said colonies now living in a mixed socio-economic situation; many no more live in traditional tribal ways and have mixed aspirations now. This would mean that they cannot and should not be blindly given the right to be custodians of PAs. Vested interests have already set foot in these areas and this will be strengthened by the said Act; an Act that will build destructive townships. Can our Country afford this?
2. History into colonization of India: It is a known fact that the southern hemisphere countries feed the northern hemisphere countries. This can be seen by the winter pattern in the respective regions. Europe that led the industrial growth, many centuries back found that with education and civilization it was no more a feasible position to undertake daily hunting for purpose of food and required a preservative that will preserve meat during winter. Advancement in science taught them that if salt is mixed with pepper is an excellent preservative for storing meat. This resulted in the initial design of what was called ‘Meat Safes’. The only issue, where do you get sufficient quantity of pepper??? The search for ‘Black Gold’ entered high on the agenda for Spain, Portugal and England. Around this period Christopher Columbus had to flee Italy for advocating a theory that the world is round and not flat as presumed then. The Queen of Spain however granted him refuge and made a request that he set sail and find the land of pepper by sea. Samples were given to him and description of how Indians will look. Christopher Columbus set sail but lost path and reached America. The description of Indians though were not matching as he found that the people were reddish tanned and hence he named them ‘Red Indians’. In any case he gave them samples of pepper and they instead brought him samples of red chillies, which was very spicy. He however gathered huge quantities of the same and returned to Spain where the people eagerly awaited him. He offered a sample of red chilly, which a volunteer tried to taste but started gasping instead of being pleased. Columbus was again at the receiving end and the Spaniards wanted him to be sentenced to death, but the Queen offered to free him on a condition that he leave Spain and also spread the word of Christianity as he travels on. Sooner or later the Europeans reached the western coast of India and more particularly moved to the Western Ghats in search of pepper. Having found pepper, they convinced us Indians to barter for chillies, which Indians found fascinating. In reality a one sided 2:1 or more barter for pepper paved way into India. While this was going on, Portugal started attacking the English ships at High Sea for the pepper and as a result, East India Company was formed to protect the English ships at sea and eventually colonized our Country. Subsequently, the Portugese who colonized Goa, with a sole intention to get back at the English, taught the Nadar Community of Tamil Nadu the art of growing chillies. This resulted in the west changing our food style for their gain. This story is to point out that this act on the part of the western countries is the prominently known case of Bio-piracy from India. Now coming back to the Tribal Act and the new world order in its Patent Laws will reflect that the greatest threat to any bio-rich habitat is bio-piracy and India is most vulnerable. The patent laws have been so framed to protect the interests of the western countries that sou-generis cannot be patented. This means that any plant of micro flora cannot be patented in its natural form but permits that a genetic modification of the same by biotechnology can be patented. The only protection to a country is that it should have taxonomical records to show that the species is indigenous to that country, which will take India a few centuries to document. The west and more particularly America have huge infrastructure for this purpose and this makes India very vulnerable to bio-piracy. It is well known that India ranks high on the bio-diversity hot spots at No. 7 in the list; which is identified on the basis of the number of flowering species. However, though India is at 7, the genetic variability that can be achieved in specie from India is 4 to 7 times more that its counter parts across the world making India the most sought for bio reserve. Specie theft, micro flora theft are the world order today and a bio rich country like India is unable to do so with the existing infrastructure and can you imagine what will happen when this new Act becomes a reality. India is DOOMED of her resources and the resultant drain in forex reserves to import products that were stolen from us but genetically altered and patented else where.

The Tribal Act is the worst populist gimmick that any Government can undertake and the first step towards the sale of India to the world.
Should a true son of the soil look at her mother India and say “Forgive them Mother for they do not know what they are doing” or put the right foot forward and take the architects of disaster by the horns??????


V.Pradeep,Cochin said...

The comments by Pratap was very interesting. Obviously there is more than what meets the eye.Thanks Mohan for initiating a discussion.